day 8 down under: the blue mountains, cable cars, koalas, and a harbour cruise

June 24th, 2017

I woke up early on Saturday morning to walk to the nearby Marriott Sydney Harbour to catch my tour bus for the day by 7:45.  I had booked a full day tour of Sydney’s Blue Mountains using Viator on recommendation from my coworker who had been here before.  It was about $140 for the day but it included everything I wanted and more!  There was a packed itinerary but I was so excited to get started!

It was a small group tour so there were only 16 of us in total.  Our tour guide, Andy, was hands down the best guide I’ve ever had!  He was hilarious—reminded me of a slightly calmer Robin Williams in his story telling and cadence.  He pulled up to the hotel and there were heaps of us standing around. “I am looking for one lucky guest… Kara!”  I raised my hand and he welcomed me warmly to the bus where I was the last to be scooped up.  The bus was small but perfect for the day.

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Andy told us our first stop of the day was to be in a little town called Leura at the top of the Blue Mountains.  It would take just over 2 hours to get there so we were stopping for morning tea at a café called Loaves and Dishes in Leura.  There was a big festival going on that weekend, he said, so he phoned in our tea orders and off we went.

During the two hour drive, we were told stories ranging from the history of everything we passed, funny anecdotes about Aussie politics, environmental impacts of their reliance on coal, the reasoning behind the names of all of the places we were seeing (mostly Aboriginal), and we also learned that Andy is a Kiwi from New Zealand but he lives in the Blue Mountains and knows them intimately.  He also went above and beyond and had researched an interesting short documentary on the settlement of Sydney and checked it out from the local library for us to watch “on the boring bits of motorway”.  It was fascinating to hear how it turned from a penal colony first sailed to in 1788, to the building of the Harbour Bridge to keep unemployed men off the streets in the global depression, to today where it is pushing to be a real international capital city.

We passed through some adorable old towns along the way.  Most were named for some of the very first explorers to go over the Blue Mountains to find farming land, like Lawson and Wentworth.

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We entered the Blue Mountains and Andy started to point out the flora and fauna around us.  The gum tree, although not initially the most beautiful tree, makes up 90% of the foliage in the Blue Mountains and is an incredibly important tree in Australia.  Koalas, for example, dine exclusively on various types of gum trees.  He also told us about the leaves of a gum tree: they hang vertically (which was of great surprise to early botanists who had only seen horizontal leaves!).  They also have oils within the leaves that absorb most light but reflect the blue on the ultraviolet scale, thus making the mountains seem blue.  So cool!

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We arrived in Leura around 10:15 and all went in to Loaves and Dishes where our tea was waiting for us.  I had ordered the banana bread, which was lightly toasted with a pat of Aussie butter on top.  I also ordered a flat white to drink which is similar to a latte.  There was an empty chair at my table so Andy sat down and the two of us became fast friends.  We had until 11:45 to eat and wander around the shops and markets in Leura, but Andy and I talked until at least 11:30 like old friends!

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I walked around for the last 15 minutes and visited a few shops that were selling local items.  I picked up some gifts for friends and family and then hopped back on the bus.  Our next stop was Scenic World about 20 minutes away.

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Scenic World is set in the heart of the Blue Mountains and has four activities in total for guests to adventure along.  It is owned by a private family who simply have a license to operate in the mountains but everything is beautiful preserved.  It was originally the site of a working coal mine which Andy told us we would be seeing later.

As an idea of how the entire park looked, here is a map of Scenic World (borrowed from this site).  Just LOOK how steep the railway is…

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When we arrived, Andy told us that we were going to take the Scenic Skyway car across the Jamison Valley and he would drive the coach around and meet us on the other side.  The Scenic Skyway is a fairly large cable car that whisks you over the valley and is really beautiful to experience—if not slightly terrifying!

Check out the cable car (photo from the Scenic World website here)

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The Skyway took about 5 minutes in total and we got our wristbands on the other side.  We had the chance to take some pictures at a breathtaking spot at the tippy top of the mountains.  Just, wow.

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Once we all had pictures, Andy told us the story of an important rock formation behind us called the “Three Sisters”.  If you’d like to read more about it, click here, otherwise here is a retelling of the version of the legend I was told.  The legend of the Three Sisters is an Aboriginal legend involving a medicine man and his three daughters.  Some warriors from another village wanted to marry his daughters, Meehi, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo, but it was forbidden.  On the day they came to take the girls, the medicine man turned them in to three rock formations on the edge of a cliff to keep them safe using his magic bone.  The warriors came to find the medicine man but he had turned himself in to a Lyre bird as a disguise.  But in the bustle, the medicine man lost his magic bone.  To this day, the three sisters sit as pillars of rock and the medicine man still a lyre bird.  The legend goes, if you see a lyre bird in the forest, it’s the medicine man still and forever looking for his magic bone.

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To get down in to the deciduous rainforest in the Blue Mountains, we took the Scenic Cableway which dove over the edge of the cliff and down to the forest floor.  It was incredibly steep and I was able to get a spot at the very front to experience the drop!  Check out the video below and listen to the reaction of those in the car with me 😊

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At the bottom, Andy invited us to go on a nature walk through the rainforest.  There were a few paths but I went for the longest of them all and was in awe of the beauty of the forest.  There were trees everywhere, deep and green and lush, and the weather was a tad crisp which added to the fresh air all around.  Most of the trees we saw were gum trees, but there were also some fern trees which looked like palms from a distance, and snarling knots of tangled roots and vines everywhere.

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Andy told us to look out for the Lyrebird which resembles a female peacock but is half the size.  It has long feathers out the back but is not very colorful.  He said he sees them a little under 50% of the time he is in the mountains on a tour, but knows when they are near because they mimic the sounds of anything around them.  Lyrebirds know upwards of 20 bird calls and do them in succession to see if anyone of interest is around.

About 10 minutes after telling us about the Lyrebird, someone spotted one!  It was small and not easy to see, but it sang and sang its bird songs.  It was amazing to hear how many it knew!  I managed to get a small video of its singing.  We sat and watched it for a solid 5 minutes before it scurried off to find its match.  What a rare and special treat!

We kept on the walk and came across a small pavilion.  We all stopped for a few moments of silence, taking in the sounds of nature around us peacefully.  I had to get a picture with the best tour guide ever!

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We then found a waterfall and started to see remnants from the old coal mining days.  They didn’t have to dig far to find the coal layer!

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The way back to the top of the mountain was by riding the… wait for it… steepest railway in the world.  We boarded a small car with rows of seats that went up at a 62 degree incline.  Holy crap.  I accidentally was at the head of the pack and got put in the first car— thrill seekers be warned!  This was intense!  We were looking straight down as this car pulled us at an incredible angle up the mountains.  “The coal never seemed to mind so you shouldn’t either!”  Andy said, laughing!

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Safe and sound at the top and needing a stiff drink, I boarded the coach again and we were off to the Conservation Hut for lunch, about 15 minutes from Scenic World.  It was a beautiful little cottage nestled in the mountains and I had bolognese and a long black and a much needed rest.

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With a few minutes to spare, I walked out on the veranda to get a good look at the mountains, and I was met face to face with a kookaburra!  It stared at me, I stared at it, and we just looked at each other for a few minutes in awe.  “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree” sure is accurate!

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The last official stop on the tour was the one I was looking forward to the most the wildlife park! We were in for an afternoon of interacting (read: HUGGING) koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats… you name it.  It was an hour back towards Sydney so we trucked along making our way.  On the way, Andy introduced us to an Aboriginal/contemporary musician named Xavier Rudd.  He played 6 or 7 songs and they were so good!  We mused that he sounded a little Paul Simon with a didgeridoo.  When he comes to Sydney, he sells out the Opera House!  I loved the music and bought his album when I got home that night.

We arrived at Featherdale Wildlife Park and had an hour and a half to play with the animals with a deadline back on the bus by 4:30.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I jetted in the park and made a beeline for the koalas.  There was a law passed 4 or 5 years ago banning people from physically HOLDING a koala (dreams of hugging dashed…) but I was able to add on “koala encounter” for a few dollars extra.  This got me up close and personal with my new Aussie boyfriend, Victor the Koala, and a picture commemorating the event!  Victor happily munched on eucalyptus the whole time I patted his little legs.  SO CUTE.

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After the koalas and my excitement had been curbed, I went to see the wombats (big, fat, furry things).  But then it was time for the kangaroos.  AHH.  There was a big enclosure where tons of wallabies (smaller kangaroo looking animals) and real roos were hopping about looking for food.  You could get a cup and feed them from your hands while they looked longingly at you AND IT WAS THE BEST. Their claws look sharp but they are actually very gentle and sweet little guys!

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The Little Penguins were getting fed next and their tiny blue bodies waddled around their paddock while the adorable keeper fed them small baitfish (head first so the scales stay flat!).

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I actually follow Featherdale Wildlife Park on Instagram and knew that they had a fresh round of 8 week old DINGO PUPPIES which were the cutest balls of fluff you could imagine!  They really just looked like domesticated dog puppies but there were 9 males in total.  They rolled and wrestled and fought over a bit of food and were generally in great spirits.

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Finally, we saw a Tasmanian Devil.  These little guys patrol their territories so much that they work a track around the outside of it.  They are incredibly endangered, close to extinction, because most are infected with a terrible eczema that causes a disease and they die within 90 days.  There were two brothers who had been rescued here at the park and it was feeding time!  The devil I saw got a huge egg and worked for a good 10 minutes to get all the good stuff out.  We heard a brief story of how they got their names from the keeper: the Tazzie Devils make a horrid screeching sound when they are threatened and the tips of their ears change color and turn bright red.  The Englishmen long ago encountered a Tazzie and in the dark all the could see was a dark figure with flaming red ears screaming at them— they thought it was the devil incarnate!

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We ran out of time at Featherdale but I could have spent another 10 days there with the animals!  But, as Andy said, “we have a boat to catch”.  Off we went back in to Sydney for the harbor cruise.  We made good time back to the city (Sydney traffic is unpredictable), so Andy took us around the 2000 Sydney Olympic sites.  He had come over to Australia himself in 1999 for the Olympics and never left!

Finally we arrived at the ferry and Andy bid us goodbye.  What a difference he made.  The tour felt like the best family and friends together enjoying the day!  The harbor cruise was meant to take us back to Sydney by boat.  It was large and fit a 5 large tour groups plus our small group onboard.  Andy told us to make our ways to the left side of the boat for the best views (he has all the tips!) so I did just that.

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It was sunset when we launched so we enjoyed the sunset over the quadrillion dollar houses lining the shore all the way to Sydney Harbour. Everything was lit up and just gorgeous in the sunset.

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I snapped some shots of the bridge and the Opera House on the way in.  It was like I had front row seats!  What a way to cap of the day!

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It was 7PM when we docked and the tour was over.  I grabbed a chicken katsu burger at The Burger Project at Circular Quay on recommendation from one of my students that I taught in Canberra.  It was really good!

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I finally made my way back to my hotel and crashed on the bed.  It had been an incredibly long and busy day, but every single thing about it was spectacular.  I couldn’t have planned a better day in Sydney!

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